When Damir Kreilach scored his 73rd-minute goal to ultimately give Real Salt Lake a 2-1 road win at Vancouver Whitecaps FC on Saturday night, his celebration was rather nonchalant.
The 33-year-old Croatian veteran didn't sprint to the corner flag or pull off some pre-planned routine. Instead, RSL's captain rather calmly turned and ran back towards midfield, gesturing to his teammates to calm down. The smile on his face, though, told a more complete story.
The 2023 season-opening victory wasn't just any other result for RSL; it marked the return of their talisman. Kreilach played just five matches last year, undergoing a back procedure midseason that prematurely brought his 2022 to a disappointing end. But in Kreilach's first match back, his winner was a timely reminder of just how important he is to Pablo Mastroeni's team.
"The things that Dami brings to the group are so much more than what you see with your eyes," the head coach said postgame. "He brings just an unbelievable amount of leadership to the group, managing the game the right way, leading the press from the front, linking through the midfield. But his greatest asset is scoring goals. You know, I've never seen a player that is so lethal in front of goal. He takes his chances well."
Kreilach was effusive in his gratitude, thanking the club's medical staff, coaches, ownership group, fans and his teammates for supporting him during his lengthy recovery.
"First of all, I want to say thank you to RSL as a club," he said. "It wasn't easy during these 10 months while being injured, but at the end of the day it's part of the business."
Kreilach, a 2021 MLS All-Star, is now in his sixth season with RSL. He has 44 goals and 23 assists in 125 regular-season games, a serious threat in his second-striker/attacking midfield role. And with wingers Jefferson Savarino and Andrés Gómez expected to shoulder some attacking burden, the Claret-and-Cobalt should have attacking options this year.
Altogether, RSL's win at BC Place was more of the same. They haven't lost a season opener in 14 consecutive years, despite playing 13 of those matches away from home. And while Kreilach was quick to praise the entire team, the goal meant more to the club than just three points on the table.
"After spending a year away and watching his teammates play last year, I'm just so happy for him to be able to share in that moment and score the game-winner," expressed Mastroeni. "Because he is the leader of this group and he's waited a long time for this moment."
Added Kreilach, who was joined by homegrown defender Justen Glad on the scoresheet: "I think overall it was a great win today. It's not easy to play away and get three points. We didn't maybe come into the game the way that we wanted, but we showed in the second half our DNA, our great mentality, and we were so happy that we were able to come back."
HIGHLIGHTS: Vancouver Whitecaps vs. Real Salt Lake | February 25, 2023